Authorities on Edge After Al Qaeda Leader Captured in Libya

The Americans kept Libya’s government in the dark about their plan to apprehend a terrorist.

Special Operations Forces search a compound during a clearing operation in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, October 13, 2011
Special Operations Forces search a compound during a clearing operation in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, October 13, 2011 (US Army/Staff Sergeant Kaily Brown)

Al Qaeda’s core network of operatives was struck another dramatic blow on Saturday when American commandos executed a flawless operation in the Libyan capital against a man that has been on the United States’ most wanted list for the past fifteen years.

Nazih Abdul-Hamed Nabih al-Ruqai’i, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Liby, may not be a household name like the terror network’s former chief, Osama bin Laden, or its current head, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but he is held responsible for plotting the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks, which claimed 224 lives, including twelve Americans, marked the beginning of what would become America’s war on terrorism. For Americans, it was Al Qaeda’s most audacious and brutal terrorist attacks until September 11, 2001, when it crash three commercial airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington DC.

For decades, Liby was at the heart of an organization known for its internal secrecy, ruthlessness to outsiders, adaptation and attention to detail. Like many of the men who would come to join Al Qaeda over the years, he traveled from Libya to Afghanistan in the late 1980s as a young man in order to fight the Soviet occupation — a trip that gave him his first taste of jihad.

Shortly after Osama bin Laden flew to Sudan in the early 1990s to establish his Al Qaeda headquarters, Liby took the same route to Khartoum. At some point during those early years, he personally met Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda figures but the dates of those meetings have not been disclosed by American counterterrorism officials.

His membership in Al Qaeda almost landed him in prison in 1999 when he fled his British home after American authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of killing and maiming nationals in the 1998 embassy bombings. A federal court in New York filed an indictment that accused Liby of taking photographs and engaging in reconnaissance outside the embassy in Kenya prior to the truck bombings that would kill hundreds and destroy the facility.

After fifteen years of trying to find him, intelligence agents reportedly discovered Liby’s location in Tripoli where, after a few months of surveillance, a combined team of CIA, FBI and military personnel surrounded his car in broad daylight and shoved him into a vehicle before speeding off. The operation was an unqualified success and according to the United States government, a vindication of its commitment to bring international terrorists to justice, regardless of when they executed their crimes.

However, at the same time that America is celebrating a counterterrorism triumph, the raid has had the unintended effect of creating a potentially damning diplomatic problem with the interim Libyan government, one that continues to battle dozens of independent and heavily armed militias in the wake of a civil war that overthrew the longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Libyan units did not appear to have participated in the operation, nor were they informed about the raid ahead of time. While this is certainly not the first time a host nation was kept in the dark for operational concerns — Pakistan was not informed beforehand in May 2011 when American special forces raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad — it underlines that the United States are unconvinced that the interim authority in Libya can keep vital intelligence information under the wraps.

It only took a few hours for Libyan lawmakers to lash out angrily that their national sovereignty had been infringed upon — by an ally no less. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan formally asked the United States to provide more information about an operation that he likens to a kidnapping. Some members vow to call a confidence vote if it turns out that government units were involved.

A senior Al Qaeda associate is now in American custody and will likely be held for several days or weeks of interrogation before being sent to New York to stand trial. Counterterrorism officials are breathing a sigh of a relief that the operation accomplished its goal without casualties. But diplomats working in Libya will have to assuage an already shaky Libyan government that they are still considered a partner.

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